Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Serb militiamen regroup over Kosovo

By JOVANA GEC, Associated Press Writer Sat May 5, 12:01 PM ET

BELGRADE, Serbia - Hundreds of burly former militiamen from the Balkan wars regrouped outside a church in central Serbia on Saturday, promising to fight together as a paramilitary unit once more if Kosovo breaks away from the government in Belgrade.

Twenty-seven people were detained, all wearing T-shirts with symbols of the disbanded Unit for Special Operations, whose former commander and several members are on trial for the 2003 assassination of Serbia's reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

"We will never give up Kosovo, we are ready to fight," said one of the organizers, Andrej Milic. Milic added their unit will be available to the government if Serbia goes to war, and called for a "new Serb uprising and a new battle for Kosovo."

The event illustrated the mounting nationalism here over the Western-backed plan to allow Kosovo to split from Serbia as demanded by its ethnic Albanian majority.

Many of those in Krusevac on Saturday wore military uniforms with nationalist symbols typical of the notorious units accused of atrocities during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Some wore T-shirts with images of the U.N. war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.

Kosovo is formally part of Serbia, but is dominated by ethnic Albanians who are seeking independence. The region has been run by the United Nations since a 1998-99 Serb-Albanian war.

Talks on the formation of a new pro-Western government in Serbia, meanwhile, remain deadlocked, triggering a political crisis that could pave the way for the return to power of the nationalists loyal to ex-leader Slobodan Milosevic

The United States and its allies favor internationally supervised independence for the province, as proposed in the U.N. plan, but Russia opposes it, signaling a possible showdown at the U.N. Security Council which will have the final say on the matter.

Most Serbs consider Kosovo the heartland of their history and culture. The government in Belgrade has rejected the plan.

There was no immediate reaction from the Serbian government to the veterans' gathering in Krusevac, although creation of paramilitary units in Serbia is illegal.

The volunteer units were first founded in the early 1990s, during the rule of the late Milosevic, who took Serbia to four wars during his decade-long rule.

Dragoljub Vasiljevic, one of the volunteers who came to Krusevac on Saturday denied the brutality allegations, telling the Beta news agency that they were "honorable and brave" fighters.

The organizers said that their unit will be named after a medieval Serb leader, Czar Lazar, who reportedly led the Serb army in a crucial battle against the Ottoman Turks in Kosovo in 1389. The Serbs lost the battle but cherish the event as one of the most important in their history

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